Amina Gautier, PhD., is the author of three award-winning short story collections: At-risk, Now We Will Be Happy and The Loss of All Lost Things. She was honored with the 21st Century Award at the 2016 Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner. The 21st Century Award honors significant recent achievement in writing by a Chicago-based author. In presenting this award, the Chicago Public Library Foundation and the Chicago Public Library hope to encourage the creation of new works and increase public awareness of the writer's talents. Amina has generously agreed to share the text her of speech with us in this guest blog.
This is a very special evening and a very special award for me, partly because, like all of you, I love libraries and I believe in them and the work that they do. In giving my thanks today, I’d like to talk about the roles libraries have played in my life. I was born in 1977 and I tell you this so you can understand the culture of my generation. I am from the Reading Is Fundamental, One to Grow On, Captain OG Read More, Reading Rainbow Generation. I am a product of the after-school special and of School House Rock. Conjunction Junction? I know your function. I’m a member of the last generation to be pushed toward the library for hands-on learning via the encyclopedia, the reference desk, and the card catalog rather than pushed toward the internet.
I am originally from New York, and I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood known as Brownsville. I lived equidistant between two public libraries—one on Church Avenue and one on Mother Gaston Boulevard. Every Friday, my elementary school classmates and I walked together to the Church Avenue library to choose our weekend books for our book reports due Monday. I waited for every Friday to come so I could step into that space and roam and browse and lose myself and find myself once again. I waited for Friday so I could spin the racks that held the paperbacks, so I could find the books I wanted and bring back books for others. I was a short-order cook, taking requests, bringing back Agatha Christie mysteries for my great-aunt who could not make the long walk. Every Friday I always came back with more than I could carry. Just as it is for many of us, the library was my go-to place. It was the place where I was sent to “look it up.” The place I could hole up in on hot summer afternoons, using the cool space of the library to beat the summer heat. If I had a nickel for all of the libraries I’ve loved before, I’d be rich indeed.
I’ve never had a Kindle or Nook, but I never believed the prediction that electronic access to books would signal the death knell of libraries or render them unnecessary. Those of us who love books, who are enchanted by the physical properties of literature, those of us who know that holding the book in one’s hand, supporting its spine in your palm, inhaling its parchment, its thread and ink, turning its page, leaving our fingerprints behind and thus imprinting ourselves on the written word—those of us who know this know that there is a physical connection between book and reader. We know that holding our books in our hands makes reading a visceral pleasure that cannot be matched on screen. More importantly, as much as we love books, we know that libraries are so much more than repositories for books. Libraries are us. They are the people who use them, the readers who come to find books in their native languages so they can preserve and pass on their culture and heritage, the family that comes to rent a video to watch on family night, that bright kid who just wants to know more. Libraries are centers of re-imagining, hubs of reinvention—sanctuaries from the dangers of neighborhoods, confidence boosters for the unwarranted fear that we can never know enough, never learn enough. Libraries are palms that hold cultures, fingers that spread and disseminate knowledge.
Libraries hold our dreams in custody, providing stewardship for all of the possibilities we comprise. A library can erase the long walk and the dangerous paths you might have taken to reach it and it can calm your soul while engaging your mind for a time. You may be an adult studying for a GED or a civil service test, a retiree who wants to email pictures with friends and grandchildren, a student with a book report to complete, a child coming for story time, an aspiring writer needing access to everything at once, a person creating a resume for the first or 10th time, another person who wants to listen to music, or someone who just needs a place to think quietly. A library is a place with room for all of us. We can be anyone and anything we want once we enter through its doors.
The Chicago Public Library is a true example of which I speak. In the aftermath of the great fire, A.H. Burgess proposed that England donate books to create a free library in Chicago “as a mark of sympathy now, and a keepsake and a token of true brotherly kindness forever.” Opening its door on January 1, 1873, set in an abandoned iron water tank at LaSalle and Adams streets, the Chicago Public Library was created from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, and it stands as both a figurative and literal example of the power of potential and transformation. For all of these reasons, I am deeply honored that it has given me this award. Thank you.
In addition to the 21st Century Award, Gautier has received numerous awards for her work. At-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award, The First Horizon Award and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Now We Will Be Happy was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, the International Latino Book Award, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President's Book Award, a National Silver Medal IPPY Award and was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction and the Royal Palm Literary Award. More than 90 of her stories have been published, appearing in numerous literary journals, including Agni, Callaloo, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, StoryQuarterly and Quarterly West. Gautier has won the Crazyhorse Prize, Danahy Fiction Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the William Richey Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award, and the Lamar York Prize in Fiction and received fellowships and scholarships from American Antiquarian Society, The Betsy Hotel, Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Callaloo, Dora Maar, Disquiet International, Hawthornden, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Kimbilio, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Key West Literary Seminars, MacDowell Colony, Prairie Center of the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Ucross Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center.